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Blighty might have astronauts in future, says UK gov

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The UK government is to reconsider the idea of British astronauts, after deciding 22 years ago that there would be none.

The BBC reports today that a new review of manned spaceflight will be carried out by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) - a government body - as part of the new space strategy. The BNSC will report on the potential costs and benefits that might result from Blighty's boys and girls going into space.

The final decision will be made by ministers at the Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills (which has science within its portfolio).

Science and Innovation Minister Ian Pearson said: "Space technology is a vital part of our everyday life... Applications from space underpin today's major business sectors... The UK is at the leading edge."

Recent UK space efforts have included the Beagle lander, which hitched a ride to Mars aboard a European spacecraft at colossal expense and then plunged to oblivion achieving nothing.

More positively, British makers have produced the initial GIOVE-A testbed satellite for the Galileo sat nav programme, and will now produce an interim GIOVE-A2 to keep hold of the project's frequency slots.

Whether or not the UK decides to have astronauts, finding and funding spacecraft for them to fly on could be problematic. The scientific budgets are under severe strain at present owing to the running costs of so-called "big science" projects such as the Diamond particle-punisher.

Blighty's physics and astronomy boffins are facing severe job losses as a result, and are already up in arms. If even more of them were sacrificed to pay for a small number of space aces - some of whom at least would presumably not be scientists at all - there would be even more trouble.

The head of the RAF has lately said he would happily provide some of his highly-trained aircrew to be astronauts, but the British military is also strapped for cash and certainly has none to spare for spaceships.

The new UK-forces Skynet 5 comm sats had to be bought with money borrowed on the promise it would be repaid from Treasury "conflict resolution" budget supplements in coming years. This seems a safe bet as the conflict in Afghanistan will take a long time to resolve; but this probably isn't a viable way to fund manned spaceflights.

All in all, then, the putative British astronauts' best chance of actually getting into space would seem to involve trying for a free ride with NASA - or perhaps the Russians, Europeans, Chinese, maybe orbital bubble tycoon Robert Bigelow - some outfit which is actually serious about space exploration.

In effect, the UK government has no real space ambitions - none that it's prepared to back up with cash, anyway - and this doesn't really seem to be changing. A Briton keen to get into space would probably have a better chance of doing so by becoming a billionaire biz kingpin and buying his or her way into orbit than by trying for a future British astronaut programme.

Mr Pearson said: "These coming decades promise to be even more exciting than the last. The Government is determined that the UK remains at the forefront of the evolving space scene." [Our emphasis].

"I look forward to working with all sides of the space community in delivering our exciting vision," he added. ®

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